The pandemic crisis has spurred the imagination of agile, tech-based Asia-Pacific businesses to take bold steps in finding new roles in their customers’ lives. A look at how a few of these companies have adapted or evolved their business models is instructive.
This period has brought into focus some of the changes that have been underway for some time in APAC. The new generation of industry leaders has studied overseas, has a more open mindset than the preceding generation and is happy with a less hierarchical business structure. The all-powerful chairman figure of previous generations is disappearing, and modern leaders are confident in delegating power to teams across territories or different product divisions as they expand.
The region’s age demographics are also an advantage. Most Asian populations (excluding Japan) are on average younger than the West. Leadership is now drawn from a more dynamic, can-do and digitally savvy talent pool that mirrors the attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours of youthful consumers.
The three leaders that have caught my eye oversee businesses ranging from a startup to a listed juggernaut, but share commonalities. They can spot an unexpected opportunity in a sector, are willing to experiment and are prepared to fully meet their consumers’ wants and needs. They all provide valuable lessons for business leaders across the globe.
Double down on your reason for existing
Hong Kong is not normally associated with cutting-edge tech ‘unicorns’ but WeLab, founded and led by Simon Loong, launched in 2013 with the smart idea of offering purely online consumer financing solutions powered by advanced AI and big data. Now WeLab serves over 42 million users and 300 enterprise customers across Hong Kong, Mainland China and Indonesia.
The business took the role of champion of the ‘little guy’ and addressed the complexity and hurdles the average person faces to access a credit line, compared with big businesses or wealthy individuals. It democratizes access to financial services and support via a customer-centric approach—its services are intuitive, seamless and mobile-first.
Now WeLab is doubling down on its mission of improving lives through game-changing technology and innovation. During the pandemic it secured a virtual banking licence (a triumph in itself, as the Hong Kong government tends to reserve licences for established businesses) and has kept up momentum by making it easier for its target audience to access the recent government handout in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong economy was hit badly by the wave of social unrest last year, and the pandemic has put an even tighter squeeze on people’s personal finances and on local businesses. The HK$10,000 handout was designed to relieve people’s financial burden and stimulate the local economy via the ‘multiplier effect’.
With people unable to access their ‘free money’ until July, WeLab stepped in to help with its ‘#HKCashDrop’ initiative, offering the HK$10,000 to people faster in the form of interest-free loans at no cost. The project illustrates Loong’s business acumen in making practical decisions that support the community and gives Hong Kong a much-needed morale boost.
Don’t be afraid to pivot
Co-founded by Malaysian Anthony Tan (who is CEO), Grab was Southeast Asia’s first unicorn. Based in Singapore, it originally focused on its utility as a mobile ride-hailing app, eventually buying out Uber’s regional operations two years ago.
Ride-hailing services have been hit hard by the pandemic, and Grab is no exception. Despite the ever-evolving situation, one of its strengths has been the ability to pivot, to try new things and move quickly. While Grab was already diversifying its platform to include food, delivery, and financial services, the current climate has pushed the company to think of more creative solutions around what it can offer to customers in Southeast Asia as their needs evolve during this new normal.
In August, Grab launched a ‘Thrive with Grab’ strategy, and expanded its financial services to include a microinvestment platform, a third-party loan platform, and a ‘buy now, pay later’ service. These steps towards offering an accessible, transparent financial services ecosystem aim to empower Grab's customers in Southeast Asia, and makes complete sense in a post-Covid world, where many more consumers face daily uncertainty due to the impact of the pandemic across key industries such as tourism.
Not forgetting the importance of its drivers, Grab has also partnered with Unilever to launch an initiative that creates more demand and supports small businesses. Unilever’s sanitation and hygiene products support in-vehicle cleaning and personal hygiene, and are also available to buy from small businesses via Grab’s retail and delivery services. While Grab is under pressure due to the pandemic, and merger talks with rivals are believed to be ongoing, its innovative ‘can do’ spirit gives it a great chance of survival or successful consolidation.
Understand your audience
The final business that impresses is Tencent Music Entertainment, led by CEO Cussion Pang (full disclosure: a Superunion client).
It’s no minnow, but a giant listed on the New York Stock Exchange and took a 10% stake in Universal Music this year. Yet it remains light on its feet and has leapfrogged Western streaming players to transform what the music category means.
The company is tapping into online social behaviours and the hunger for interaction of Chinese millennials. Its role during the ‘lockdown’ period has been to connect, entertain and inspire people with its offerings. The way it leverages technology to create new experiences with music at their core is exciting. For example, its WeSing social karaoke app allows people to upload their unique performances and share comments.
Its QQ Music service also demonstrates a fresh approach to understanding its audience and finding new revenue streams amid lockdown. It allows live streaming by artists and influencers, and fans can buy virtual gifts to send their favorites via micropayments, which add up to huge revenues.
The ability of these companies to survive and thrive is driven by decisive leaders making fast decisions and being responsive to market realities. The speed to market for WeLab’s Cash Drop concept, for example, was astonishing—it’s the kind of move probably impossible in the European financial sector.
Every businesses’s challenge or crisis is unique, and every country has its own regulatory hurdles, but innovative companies by nature are more structurally suited to adapting to changing market conditions. These companies refuse to be defined by the market as a static, one-trick pony and are constantly seeking opportunities that bolster their aim to be a lifestyle partner deeply integrated into the day-to-day lives of their customer base.
Benedict Gordon is Asia CEO at Superunion.